For a team that has gone 44 years without a championship, the Los Angeles Kings are a fascinating study on so many levels. In their history, they've made just one trip to the Stanley Cup final (1993) and may have even won the thing if Marty McSorley hadn't been caught using an illegal stick, right at the point that they were about to take a 2-0 lead, on the road, against the Montreal Canadiens.
It's been mostly downhill for the 15 seasons since - 11 years out of the playoffs, three first-round exits, plus one memorable upset win over a 111-point Detroit Red Wings in 2001, with coach Andy Murray behind the bench.
One of the NHL's biggest issues during that down turn was how weak its teams were in the three major U.S. markets - New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The iffy results in Boston, another attractive Original Six market, weren't great either. But the Rangers have been OK for a few years now; the Bruins soared to the top of the Eastern Conference last year; and the Blackhawks possess one of the best young teams in the game.
So now it is just left for the Kings to execute their turnaround in the standings, a painfully slow process that some thought would be expedited this July in the unrestricted free-agent market. It didn't happen, but not for lack of trying.
The Kings ended up with one strategic signing - defenceman Rob Scuderi, off the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins - and one addition made via trade, acquiring former Oilers winger Ryan Smyth from the rebuilding Colorado Avalanche.
The Kings had been linked to the Ottawa Senators in a possible trade for Dany Heatley, but assistant GM Ron Hextall put an abrupt end to that talk during a recent season-ticket holder forum, noted that Heatley came with too many red flags for their liking.
Smyth, a left winger with a less impressive resume, but also less perceived baggage, became a more attractive second choice.
On the surface, it looked as if the Kings took on a fairly hefty contract with Smyth because of his annual $6.25-million (all currency U.S.) salary-cap charge. However, a closer look shows it's not as bad as it may appear. For starters, the Avalanche took back from Los Angeles a player, Tom Preissing, who was earning NHL money ($2.75-million for two more years) in the minor leagues.
Kyle Quincy, the other player surrendered in the deal, was a decent contributor last year for the Kings, but he was acquired on the waiver wire from Detroit, so they didn't invest a lot of time or effort in his development.
Moreover, Smyth's original contract with Colorado was front-loaded, so the most expensive two years (one at $7.5-million, one at $7.25-million) have already clicked off the contract. What's left are the final three years at $6.5, $5.5 and $4.5-million.
It's not a great cap number ($6.25-million overall), but for a team such as the Kings, with cap room to spare, it's not as big an issue as it might be elsewhere in the NHL. They are still $7.25-million under the 2009-10 salary cap, with 20 players signed for next year.
In terms of cash out of the owners' pocket, the Smyth contract - minus what they were paying Preissing in the minors - is just about right for a player who scored 59 points in 77 games last season and meets the organization's primary requirement for depth at left wing.
Financially, the Kings would still be in a position to revisit a Heatley deal if they so desired, but according to general manager Dean Lombardi, they chose to go in a different direction with Smyth.
"The contract is good, but that's not the reason we did it," said Lombardi, of the trade he completed last weekend,just ahead of the July 4 holiday in the United States and thus received minimal notoriety or attention.
"No. 1, (Smyth) is a heart-and-soul guy. We started down this path of building with youth and one of the quickest ways of getting off track is by trading your draft picks or trading young players or bringing in the wrong kinds of guys that don't stand for what you believe in."
Lombardi acknowledged that when the Red Wings' Marian Hossa unexpectedly became available on the free-agent market, he soared to the top of the Kings' wish list.
"Our free-agent list was very limited. We were interested in Hossa, but realized we were out of that early. Mike Knuble was our next guy - he plays hard, he's a no-nonsense guy. As far as (Martin) Havlat and (Marian) Gaborik, the only thing we were interested in with them were one-year deals. And that was it. Then we were down to third-line guys and we were waiting.
"The thing is too, clearly left wing was our biggest hole. We still have holes in the middle, but we just could not - Hexy and I, as much as you're tempted and you're frustrated and you get hammered in blogs for not doing anything - we said, 'nope, we're sticking with our convictions.' Fortunately, Ryan came around. The cap hit is high, but the cash made sense for us.
"The bottom line is, he's a heart-and-soul guy, plays the game the right way, goes to the blue (goal crease). He's not a highlight film, but he gets it done. So that's it."
Last year, three of the Western Conference's long-time also-rans saw their rebuilding programs pay off when the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets all made the playoffs after lengthy absences.
The Kings fell 12 points short of the 91 needed to qualify for the playoffs in the West. Still, their goaltending seemed to settle down with Jonathan Quick and Erik Ersberg, two youngsters, sharing the load. And highly regarded Jonathan Bernier, a former first-round draft choice, is waiting in the wings. Under coach Terry Murray, the Kings were vastly improved defensively, finishing a respectable 11th overall.
In addition to Smyth, they also brought in Justin Williams at last year's trading deadline, a key member of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes championship team who has had injury issues these past couple of years. Murray and Williams have a history together from their Philadelphia Flyers' days. The belief is that Smyth and Williams will provide the veteran stability, and a little added offence, to help the Kings' youthful core mature and improve. But when might that happen?
"I've said this before," answered Lombardi. "Regardless of our additions, it's not going to matter unless (Anze) Kopitar gets better; unless (Drew) Doughty gets better. (Wayne) Simmons has to get better. The kids within our system, unless those seven or eight key young players come back here in the summer and make themselves better, and then take another step next year, we're just spinning our wheels.
"That is first and foremost. It started last year. It's their team, so to speak, but it's not their team until they show me that they're willing to become the best they can be. And Kopitar is a huge issue. He has not been in shape yet his entire career. And that's normal. As we all know, so many top players have gone through this and they've got by on their ability. They don't realize there's another step they need to take to become great.
"Dustin Brown, for the first time, did it last year. Now, it's Kopitar's turn. And Doughty, last year, because he had to lose so much weight, was nowhere near a finely conditioned athlete. Jack Johnson - a whole slew of them have a lot to learn internally.
"For all the splash, or who you're adding (as free agents), the most important thing is that the kids get better. Then, it becomes important to add the right people - a Ryan Smyth, a Justin Williams, a character guy like Scuderi - and staying with the theme that we're not going for the sex, we're going for the meat."
ETC. ETC.: The Blackhawks moved quickly this past week to sign all the players that potentially could have become unrestricted free agents as a result of an administrative error involving their qualifying offers. The first wave - Troy Brouwer, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser and Aaron Johnson - all signed for reasonable dollars and term. The last two, Cam Barker and Kris Versteeg, received virtually identical contracts - three years, $9.25-million - sweeter deals probably than the Blackhawks wanted to offer at this stage of their respective careers, but faced with the uncertainty of an arbitration hearing and the not-so-palatable prospect of losing them as unrestricted free agents, they ponyed up in the end. The Blackhawks are tight to the cap now after adding Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden as free agents, but they can make the numbers work for 2009-10.
The problem comes the year after when Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, arguably their three most important players, all come up for new deals and will be in a position to demand healthy raises. Toews and Kane are the two young faces of the franchise; and have a value to the club that goes beyond their considerable on-ice contributions. It is hard to imagine that they will not get their money. Keith may be less visible from a marketing perspective, but he gobbled up a team-high 25:34 minutes of ice time per night last season and is their primary shutdown defenceman.
Because of its structure, Hossa's contract comes in at a reasonable $5.23-million salary-cap charge. The albatrosses will be goaltender Cristobal Huet (three more years at $5.625-million) and defenceman Brian Campbell (seven more years at $7.14-million). If they can make those contracts disappear a year from now, then they can find the money to pay Toews, Kane and Keith. Since no team will take them off their hands, however, they may be forced to consider two expensive alternatives - either buying them out, or burying them in the minors. Neither is a pleasing prospect, but it may be their only answer.
HEATLEY UPDATE: The Heatley rage quieted down a little this week in both Ottawa and Edmonton, probably a good thing in terms of seeking an eventual resolution of the matter. The Oilers, Heatley's primary suitor in trade talks with the Senators, are not completely out of the picture. The Oilers were on Heatley's original list of possible destinations. That he didn't say yes right away when the option was presented to him mainly stemmed from the fact that he wanted a couple of choices to consider.
Presumably, Senators GM Bryan Murray is working the phones now that the dust has settled from the first 10 days of free agency to see who missed out - and who might have the cap room and the interest in Heatley to execute a possible deal.
The Kings are out of the mix, and you'd have to think the New York Rangers are as well, since they keep adding mid-level free agents to the mix - the latest being ex-Oiler, ex-Sabre Ales Kotalik, who signed a three-year, $9-million contract.
The Rangers have a pile of their own restricted free agents to re-sign and have more than $33-million tied up in five players - Henrik Lundqvist, Wade Redden, Michal Roszival, Chris Drury and Gaborik. About the only way they could make a trade for Heatley would is if they sent Roszival and his contract to Ottawa along with one of their high-end prospects. Presumably, Marc Staal is an untouchable, even in Ranger-land; Brandon Dubinsky might be a fit. For all his talent, the mercurial Nikolai Zherdev probably wouldn't be.
You wonder too if, in the light of Heatley's wish to leave Ottawa, the tendency for teams to award no-movement contracts to players lessens in the years ahead.
Quietly, without much fanfare, Vincent Lecavalier's no-movement clause kicked in earlier this month, meaning he is now in control of his future, to the extent that if the Tampa Bay Lightning ever decided to move him, he would be in a position to refuse - and they couldn't do anything about it, not even put him on waivers, or send him to the minors, to get out from under the contract obligation.
Lecavalier suddenly has far more leverage than he did two weeks ago at the NHL entry draft; you'd have to think before he does anything, he wants to see how this next year goes in Tampa, given that the Lightning are at it again.
Even with the rumblings about financial difficulties, they have been active in the free-agent market. Their defence will be vastly upgraded this year, with Mattias Ohlund, rookie Victor Hedman and useful Matt Walker, signed away from Chicago. In goal, the hope is that Mike Smith stays healthy and that he can get some nights off following the signing Friday of Antero Nittymaki, who was a respectable back-up in Philadelphia last year (15-8-6, .912 save percentage).
The Lightning gave up 69 more goals than they scored last year, leaving them with a daunting uphill climb. Still, Steven Stamkos put up big numbers in the second half as he adjusted to life in the NHL, and a full season under coach Rick Tocchet suggests they should be better organized coming out of the gate. Provided Lecavalier comes back strongly from off-season wrist surgery, you'd think that he will provide more than the 67 points he scored a year ago (down from 92 and 108 in the previous two seasons).
AND FINALLY: No one can accurately predict next season's salary cap, although the early indications are that the drop may not be as dramatic as some had feared. For much of this past season, the expectation was that the cap would remain flat for 2009-10 and then drop - some estimates put it as high as 20 per cent - for next year. Naturally, that would put most teams, operating at or near the cap for the coming year, at a competitive disadvantage, and forced into making all sorts of unpalatable choices next season, if that were to occur.
Now, however, there is a new emerging sense that the NHL has been spared the larger effects of the slumping economy and that next year's cap - if it shrinks at all - won't be nearly as bad as originally thought. The early indications of how the economy might affect the NHL have been mostly positive. Playoff ticket sales were good and season-ticket sales are reportedly going well in most of the traditional markets.
One of the teams that may unexpectedly have some cap room next year is the Detroit Red Wings, who lost Hossa and Mikael Samuelsson as unrestricted free agents and may lose Jiri Hudler, a restricted free agent, to Russia's KHL.
Red Wings GM Ken Holland is one of the savviest in his job; and has mostly sat on the sidelines during the first 10 days of free agency. He gave big raises to two of his most important players, Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen, and that pretty much tied his hands for the rest of the summer.
"People want to know, 'Wat are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing?'" said Holland, in an interview. "Well, we're just trying to keep our own players. Zetterberg went from a $2.6-million cap hit to a $6.1-million number and Franzen went from $900,000 to $4-million.
"But we believe they're core players, star players, players we want to build around, so we spent our money on our own players. If you're a cap team, it's a race to $40-million. You need to be between $40- and $45-million for eight to 12 players. Then you fill it out the best you can."
Last year, the Red Wings made a big splash by signing Hossa to a one-year, $7.45-million contract. The reason they didn't go longer on the term was Holland's awareness that Zetterberg and Franzen needed raises.
"The days that you go into free agency every year are over," said Holland. "We were a big-market team, a big-revenue team and coming out of the work stoppage we signed a lot of guys who were looking for work - Chris Osgood and Dan Cleary and Mikael Samuelsson and Andres Lilja. A year after, we brought in Dominik Hasek, a year after that, Dallas Drake.
"You were just trying to find guys who fit in. For us, this year, those spots are being filled by kids. I don't think we're going to score as much. Obviously, we've lost 60 goals out of Hossa and Samuelsson. With (Ville) Leino on the team, we're hoping to get a few of those back and maybe Cleary and (Valterri) Filppula will chip in a few more. We've got to be better defensively.
"I don't think it's goals-scored that's so important, it's the differential between goals for and against. We scored 50 more goals for than against. We're not going to be there again; but you need to be 30 plus - more goals than goals against - to be a playoff team."
Because of the depth of Detroit's player development system, they do have some NHL-ready players prepared to step in the line-up next season, most of whom got a baptism under fire in last year's playoffs, when injuries forced Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Leino and Justin Abdelkader into important roles.
"It's becoming more and more obvious all the time, the importance of drafting and developing and moving kids on to your team - because they play cheap," said Holland. "If you want to have a team with high-end, high-salaried players, they've got to be surrounded by players making less than $1-million. It's simple math.
"We know in the summer of 2010, if we keep our team together, we've got $12-million coming off the cap. Every summer, you get to free agency and you assess your commitments and you assess your space.
"Some years, you're in a position, where you can be active in the market. Some years, you sit on the sidelines and it is somebody else's turn."